Hemingway on life and death, love and war

I believe that basically you write for two people: yourself to try to make it absolutely perfect; or if not that then wonderful. Then you write for who you love whether she can read or write or not and whether she is alive or dead. Ernest Hemingway on Writing.

Ernest Hemingway on Writing book coverWhen I visit a new place, I like to read the literature associated with that place or the literature created there. So when I went to Key West last month and the home of Ernest Hemingway, I reread The Sun Also Rises, which Hemingway wrote there, followed by A Farewell to Arms. Last night I finished For Whom the Bell Tolls for the first time and went to bed feeling rather devastated.

In my last post I was dismissive of The Sun Also Rises. When I read it the first time, in high school, I didn’t understand the novel. Decades later, I again found the characters tedious, which was Hemingway’s intention, but I at least better understood the context of those alienated, war-devastated years. His writing style, a breakthrough in Hemingway’s time, was for me so stilted and self-conscious it sometimes pulled me completely out of the story, and I especially disliked his sole female character, Lady Brett Ashley.

My post about Hemingway generated a handful of interesting and insightful comments, all by women and mostly about Hemingway’s ego and sexism and macho persona. I wish my blog attracted more male readers, but I have noticed some gender segregation in the book blog world, and I can understand that. I tend to gravitate toward female authors, and when I find I’m reading only books written by women, I’ll switch to a male author. Reading Junot Diaz, for example, was a stretch for me, but I’m glad I did. I had to talk myself into reading Hemingway again, too, but I’m glad I did that as well.

I felt uncomfortable after I was dismissive of The Sun Also Rises, and I thought about that as I read Hemingway’s other novels. Because when all is said and done, I believe Hemingway is a master and, despite my personal reactions to it, I believe The Sun Also Rises is a great book. Visiting Hemingway’s home in Key West and looking at the many candid photos on every wall in every room, I sensed something of his spirit lingering. Reading The Paris Wife and Ernest Hemingway on Writing, I saw not just Hemingway the god-like, iconic writer but Hemingway the vulnerable artist.

I don’t do the close reading of a literary scholar or a book critic, though I admire those that do. On this blog, I don’t write book reviews, and I’ve been frustrated occasionally when I hear people say I do, although I understand why they wouldn’t make these distinctions. If you were to ask me to write a book synopsis or a book review, I’d have no enthusiasm for it. (And I’m a librarian.) Here, I want to share and talk about our own, highly individual reading journeys and our personal reactions to the books we read. I think if you’re an avid reader, books help to make you the person you are, and that’s going to make a difference in what you do and who you are out in the world.

(If you’re not an avid reader, maybe you love nature and have trekked across your country, or you know almost everything there is to know about the earliest jazz recordings, or you can recite from memory every baseball statistic ever recorded, or you’re devoted to helping the poor in Third World countries. You may be on some kind of personal journey of discovery that says something important about who you are and your place in the world. That journey of discovery is what I’m interested in.)

For Whom the Bell Tolls book coverHere are some of my personal reactions to Hemingway’s novels:

  • I disliked Lady Brett Ashley because she was self-centered and slept with every man who came her way (except for Jake Barnes). Then I realized the men in The Sun Also Rises were the same, yet I wasn’t as critical of them. I held the female to a different standard.
  • When I was young I accepted and enjoyed Hemingway’s fictional romances without question. I didn’t find them sexist or offensive until literary opinion told me I should, even though I came of age just after the feminist heyday. Now, while I don’t especially enjoy Hemingway’s portrayal of women, I have to say many women acted that way. I think Hemingway understood how we idealize the other in romantic love, and how we look to each other for rescue or at least a safe haven.
  • I have trouble understanding the American Robert Jordan’s  idealism and motivation for volunteering to fight in the Spanish Civil War in For Whom the Bell Tolls. But when I think about the Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan, I’m bothered that many of us are so emotionally removed from the reality of these wars and the sacrifices a small number of Americans are making. Since I’m not especially attracted to war novels, at first I didn’t take to For Whom the Bell Tolls. I didn’t want to follow Robert Jordan and the others on their mission to blow up the bridge. Of course, I became emotionally entangled in Robert’s relationship with Maria and the others. Hemingway fought and was nearly killed in World War I and reported from the front lines during the Spanish Civil War and World War II, so he understood war and he knew how to write about it. The last one hundred pages of For Whom the Bell Tolls contain some of the most beautiful, poignant and universally truthful passages I’ve ever read. With the final sentence, I do believe Hemingway achieved perfection.

BY ERNEST HEMINGWAY

A Moveable Feast

For Whom the Bell Tolls

The Old Man and the Sea

A Farewell to Arms

The Sun Also Rises

A Clean Well-Lighted Place

In Our Time

The Garden of Eden

To Have and Have Not

Men Without Women

Islands in the Stream

Death in the Afternoon

Southernmost Beach Cafe interior

This Key West cafe is the southernmost restaurant in the US, 90 miles from Cuba. I’m sure Hemingway must have enjoyed a brandy (or two or three) here.

8 responses

  1. It’s always interesting to read the insights of others into the books we’ve loved or hated!
    I’ve just finished reading several books and biographies on Zelda Fitzgerald, and on Scott, and it rather confirms all my prejudices about Hemingway who used to refer to his loving mother as ‘that bitch’..
    I relished A Moveable Feast for years until I discovered how unreliable it was, about the Fitzgeralds and others, including claiming quite untruly that his sister Carole had been raped when she was twelve, and he also said she was both dead and divorced from her husband to whom she was happily married – Hemingway disliked him…
    I find it hard to disentangle the squalor of his life and personal habits from his writing… the heroic posing versus the mean spiritedness….

  2. In my teens I used to hate Hemingway, even though I admired his use of words. But his style just felt too masculine, he seemed to celebrate too much macho men going out and hunting, engaged in manly pursuits, while his women were a nuisance or castrating or nagging. And I still feel ambiguous about his novels. However, in his short stories, I do detect a far more vulnerable, sensitive man, though he keeps this on a tight leash.

  3. I’m all for linking travel and reading, and have enjoyed a similar reading journey recently after returning from Istanbul, and learning even more on my return given the turn of events there.

    Once we have been somewhere I think the interest remains too, I am still interested in reading about Vietnam for example, and sometimes it even seeps into the stories I write occasionally. It’s an amazing thing and something that is beneficial to indulge.

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